By Gina Ruccione, Cuisine and Restaurant Writer
When people want to talk to me about good Italian food in the Harbor Area, I get agitated.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat and brag that I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve eaten tomatoes sweeter than apples. I’ve had mozzarella that will change your whole perspective on cheese. The rant goes on—blah, blah, blah. Some people call me picky. And, that’s fine. I try to explain that I grew up watching Italian women dance around the kitchen adding a little of this and a little of that. It was completely mesmerizing. They did it without cookbooks, without measuring cups or spoons; it was full of passion, zest and it translated into this fervor for life that I rarely see in the United States.
So, as you could imagine, when I finally decided to have lunch at Michael’s Pizzeria in downtown Long Beach, I was holding the bar pretty high. The good news is that the food was outstanding. The bad news? Well, there is no bad news.
If you haven’t tried Michael’s Pizzeria in Long Beach, now would be a good time to get it together. I’ll take it upon myself to help you navigate the menu.
Antipasti: There are two appetizers that absolutely must be ordered: Arancini Bolognese and Fiori Di Zucca. Arancini in Italian means “little oranges.” Don’t worry, you’re not ordering orange slices for an appetizer. These little rice balls are stuffed with cheese, Bolognese sauce and then deep-fried to resemble little oranges. Fiori Di Zucca literally means “pumpkin flowers.” These were outstanding. The delicate flowers are stuffed with ricotta, gently fried and served with basil pesto and a honey drizzle. They were light, crispy and a wonderful combination of sweet and savory. I ate all of them.
Insalate: Salads should be balanced, fresh and full of complementary components. The Riccia con Frutta was my favorite salad on the menu. Some people might be over kale, but I’m not quite finished with it. Even if you don’t like kale, you might like this salad. Baby kale with seasonal stone fruit (plums), Gorgonzola cheese, almonds and red onions. Each component was easily identifiable and complemented each other nicely.
Let me digress before we get into the serious stuff. Of all things to consider when choosing an Italian restaurant, the most important tidbit I can give you is that everything should be made in-house. All of it. From the sauce to the sausages, the less they order from food purveyors, the better. Italians take food seriously. It has always been that way and it will forever be that way. It is innate and deeply rooted in the culture. If someone is trying to serve you something they didn’t make by hand, it’s disingenuous, un-Italian and already lacking a key ingredient: passion.
OK, back on the food train. Of course, Michael’s Pizzeria makes everything in-house or at their sister establishment and my favorite butcher shop of all time, Working Class Kitchen.
Pizza: Their pizzas are totally authentic, wood fired-Napoli-style and perfect in every way. The Margherita pizza is my favorite. It’s so simple but the ingredients are so fresh that it must be ordered and consumed on a regular basis. The Porchetta is also phenomenal. Porchetta? It’s a savory, fatty, moist, boneless pork roast — so yes, it should be on pizza. Add a little pesto, red peppers and housemade smoked mozzarella and you can’t go wrong. For some variety, try a Pizza Bianca, or one without tomato sauce. Try the Guanciale Pizza. Guanciale is an Italian cured meat made from pork jowl and its name is derived from the word guancia, which means “cheek” in Italian. It’s a milder smoked meat and it comes on the pizza with mozzarella, goat cheese, stone fruit and a little bit of honey. The Lasagna Napoletana was exceptional, too.
Michael’s Pizzeria is open for lunch, dinner, happy hour and brunch on the weekends.
Details: (562) 491-2100; www.michaelspizzeria.com
Venue: Michael’s Pizzeria, 210 E. 3rd St., Long Beach
Gina Ruccione has traveled all over Europe and Asia and has lived in almost every nook of Los Angeles County. You can visit her website at www.foodfashionfoolishfornication.com.